Neal Ford  |
  • Author, ThoughtWorker, & Meme Wrangler

Confessions of a Reformed Titilator

The Rails community has a real brouhaha on its hands, but it’s a red herring that it happens to be Ruby and Rails because it’s a pervasive problem in scientific and engineering fields of all kinds. It seems that a presentation at the GoGaRuCo Ruby conference (Golden Gate Ruby Conference) included a heaping pile of really racy, semi-pornographic imagery. The presenters hand-waved it away by telling the attendees that the images existed to keep everyone’s interest in their presentation. And, fortunately, some people called their bluff.

Studies exist that show imagery that bores into people’s basest parts (sex, violence, humor) is the easiest way to keep people interested in an otherwise boring topic. Lots of presenters use this technique to engage and keep attendees attention. I know because I’ve used it myself. And it’s really our most slovenly kind of laziness as presenters at work. Let me explain how I’ve come around to this conclusion.

At RailsConf last year, Joel Spolsky did one of the morning keynotes. As his first slide, he showed a glamor shot of Angelina Jolie and said (I’m paraphrasing) “I always show this as my first slide because I always get better evaluation scores on my keynotes when I do.” His next slide showed Brad Pitt, with his shirt open, and Joel added “And, just to be demographically fair, I show this one next.” Joel was plugging into 2 techniques for capturing attention: sex and humor. And it works on some level. The crowd (mostly) loved it. In his keynote, it was basically gratuitous: he never used it for anything other than pure pandering. But I’m always on the prowl for effective presentation tricks, so I borrowed Joel’s trick, but with a twist.

In my Ceremony & Essence keynote, which I gave at a hand-full of Ruby events last year, I had a similar picture of Angelina and Brad at the start, using it to get a laugh right out of the gate. In a keynote, if you can get people laughing early, they loosen up more and are more likely to laugh more and emote more back to the presenter. However, my use wasn’t merely gratuitous. I used other images of Angelina (and Brad) throughout the talk as an anchor point, serving two purposes. First, because everyone laughs up front, seeing a similar image reminds them of that, making it more likely they’ll laugh again. The other purpose was to pull the narrative along. Bringing up a topic early in a presentation, then allowing people to forget it, then bringing it back at an unexpected time is one of my favorite techniques in presentations. It allows attendees to make connections between disparate things that have more impact when you “force” them to make the connection themselves, rather than beating them over the head with it. For example, I brought Angelina up again when talking about demand for developers outstripping the supply, showing a publicity photo of her in the movie Hackers. This is a not so subtle anchor point that hopefully makes people realize that one of the reasons that the developer demand outstrips supply is the paucity of female developers, which hopefully makes people ponder that a bit. I use Angelina (and, to a lesser extent, Brad) throughout the talk as those kind of anchor points. Now, realize, these images are in no way pornographic. They are just publicity photos of famous actors. However, I was sensitive to the fact that some women might find this unsettling, so I made a deal with myself: if anyone every complains about those images, I’ll remove them (and restructure the talk) with no questions asked.

That happened earlier this year. One attendee at a keynote wrote me a very nice note afterwards telling me that she wasn’t comfortable with the imagery of Angelina in the talk (and that the presence of Brad didn’t help). That was my cue to stop using that imagery and find other anchor points to make my points. Her email made me realize the pervasiveness and toxicity of this kind of imagery, and that, while convenient, it was ultimately just laziness on my part. Why do you think that so much entertainment falls back on sex and violence to keep people interested in otherwise pretty dull drivel? Watching a show like The West Wing, which doesn’t traffic in that kind of stuff, shows that quality writing doesn’t have to fall back on gratuitously titillating material. Ultimately, using sexually provocative material in a technical presentation is just lazy – when we do it we’re not spending the time to come up with really compelling metaphors to represent something, relying instead on the basest of currency. Presenters, myself included, need to do better.

Lots of people who aren’t affected by this will say that this is a tempest in teapot, and that the offended parties are over reacting. Insidious misogyny is like lazy racism: people who engage in it hide behind a casual facade of “Oh, really, that was offensive”? Yes, by the way, it was.

Let me re-iterate a point: this isn’t about Rails or the Rails Community (I still haven’t gotten my official code ring and Certificate of Membership for this “community”, by the way). On average, presenters at Ruby and Rails conferences put a lot of effort into creating compelling presentations, paying attention to metaphor, presentation style, compelling imagery, etc. The conferences where I attend the most talks are Ruby/Rails and the Tri-Fork conferences (JAOO and QCon. Kudos to presenters that care about creating compelling presentations. Only sometimes pushing the envelope on what’s edgy entertainment crosses a line, which is what happened in this case. It could happen at any technical conference where the presenters are pushing hard on the creative aspect of technical presentations.

I strive not to be lazy when I put together presentations, to find compelling metaphors that don’t inadvertently offend entire groups of people. I think it is an important maturity step for engineering and software communities to vote with their feet: outrage only goes so far, but notifying those who lazily offend effectively sends the message that it’s not OK.

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Neal Ford  |
  • Author, ThoughtWorker, & Meme Wrangler